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Do Presidential Candidates Always Release Their Tax Returns? (Also: A Photo of Mitt Romney Holding Dino Flintstone)

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Unrelated image of Mitt Romney holding Dino Flintstone via Rick Friedman/Corbis

During the GOP debate last night in South Carolina, Mitt Romney was asked yet again if he intended to make his tax returns public. The former governor of Massachusetts first avoided the question, then hemmed and hawed, then gave a resounding…maybe?

It’s not the first time Romney, the former chief executive of Bain Capital, a successful private equity firm, has performed a verbal do-si-do on stage with regards to this question. Last month, he told Chuck Todd of MSNBC, “I don’t intend to release the tax returns. I don’t.” But later, he was more equivocal, saying, “Time will tell,” and “I’ll keep that open,” and then suggesting that he “wouldn’t be opposed” to releasing the forms, “if that’s been the tradition.” Finally, he said he’d “probably” release them—but only maybe, and only if he becomes the nominee.

The thing is, Romney doesn’t have to release anything if he doesn’t want to. Legally, tax returns are private. Presidential hopefuls must only file a financial disclosure report to the Office of Government Ethics, and Romney did that (revealing, for the record, that he’s worth between $190 and $250 million buckaroos).

Politically, though, Romney’s refusal to release his tax returns may be a little trickier.

Already, his fellow Republicans, including Sarah Palin, have come out swinging on the issue. Texas Governor Rick Perry—the only candidate in the Republican primary who has, in fact, released his tax returns thus far—demanded last night that Mitt release his records immediately. “Mitt,” he said, slowing down his voice for effect, “We need you to release your income tax so the people of this country can see how you made your money. I think that’s a fair thing.” Newt Gingrich, who has promised to release his own tax returns on Thursday, also pounded Romney for dragging his heels on setting a release date.

The Democratic National Committee has been less diplomatic. Earlier this month, it produced a web video, complete with horror-movie background music, claiming that traditionally, all presidential and vice presidential candidates have released their tax records, “but Romney won’t.” “What is Mitt Romney hiding?”

Past Precedent

The DNC actually has a point. According to PolitiFact , a non-partisan Pulitzer Prize Winning fact-checking site, the vast majority of candidates who have run for president or vice president in the last thirty-five years have indeed released their tax returns. Of the thirty-four candidates who ran during that time period, only seven—Jerry Brown, Pat Buchanan, Mike Huckabee, Steve Forbes, Rudy Giuliani, Richard Lugar, and Ralph Nader—have refused to release their tax returns altogether. Most released their records in the late spring. Even Romney’s dad, George Romney, released his tax returns when he ran against Richard Nixon in the Republican primary in 1968.

But Mitt Romney has never released his tax returns. Not during the US Senate race in 1994. Not during the Massachusetts governor race in 2002. And not during his last presidential bid in 2008. Ironically, during the 1994 Senate race, Romney challenged his opponent, Senator Edward Kennedy, to release his state and federal taxes to prove Kennedy had “nothing to hide.” Romney said he would release his own tax records after Kennedy released his, but Kennedy never did.

Then again, Romney’s refusal to release his personal tax records might be the right choice, as far as his campaign is concerned. In the past, when candidates have released their tax returns, it hasn’t always gone well. In 1984, Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and her husband, John Zaccaro, released their tax returns only to discover that—oops!—they owed more than $50,000 in back taxes. And during the presidential race between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976, both released their tax returns, only to discover that a tax credit, signed into law by Ford himself, “resulted in a significant tax windfall” for one of Carter’s peanut warehouses —a revelation that both men perhaps would have preferred to keep out of the headlines.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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